Guitarists Albert “Little Smokey” Smothers and Elvin Bishop might seem like odd bedfellows: The Mississippi-born Smothers is serious and earnest, his sparse, every-note-in-its-place Chicago style tinged with Texas-Memphis swing; Bishop’s stage persona is playful, even clownish, and his dexterous lead work is still flavored by the country-and-western music he grew up with in Oklahoma. Smothers’s first brush with the big time was recording with Howlin’ Wolf in the late 50s, while Bishop made his name as a founding member of Paul Butterfield’s trailblazing blues-rock band in the 60s. But their different backgrounds and personalities notwithstanding, the two men have been friends and colleagues for 40 years, since shortly after Bishop moved here in 1959–Smothers helped the underage Bishop land gigs, mentored him in the Chicago blues-guitar style, and also worked briefly with the Butterfield band (he appears on an obscure live album recorded two years before the group cut its studio debut). Bishop moved to the Bay Area in the late 60s to pursue his solo career, but he’s stayed in touch with his old friend: in the early 90s he guested on Smothers’s debut, Bossman (Black Magic), and this year the two men released their first full-length collaboration, the funk-edged live set That’s My Partner! (Alligator). Bishop’s whip-cracking guitar leads and steely slide complement Smothers’s longer phrases and richer tone, and his grainy vocals set off Smothers’s deep Delta holler. Most important, Smothers seems to exert a steadying influence on his partner–on this disc Bishop’s ebullience and self-effacing humor never feel like gratuitous fooling around. The two also give each other room to stretch out individually: on “Annie Mae” Smothers unfolds his precisely articulated west-side style in solo after solo, and Bishop turns “Dirty Drawers”–which could easily have ended up a cloying novelty–into a jubilant celebration of his rural roots. On “The Skin They’re In” the pair’s raucous, straightforward sense of fun prevents Bishop’s antiracist message from sounding preachy. And on “Travelin’ Shoes,” a hodgepodge of blues, gospel, and country, they hook up for some exhilarating, bare-bones double leads, paralleling each other in harmony–a technique I hope to hear a lot more of at this show. Friday, November 17, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy’s Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stuart Brinin.